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Salon Follows Up on Slate, Blows It

Kent noted that Slate author Mark Obbie published a piece profiling me and my efforts to oppose the plans for mass sentencing reduction, said plans going under the euphemistic label "sentencing reform."  While I do not agree with the bulk of Mr. Obbie's views of the subject, I was impressed that he took considerable time to talk with me and, as his article makes clear, to read a great deal of what I have written.  I appreciate his diligence, an increasingly scarce commodity in journalism.

On Thursday, Salon followed up on the Slate piece with an article by Elias Isquith.  I have not met or spoken with Mr. Isquith, and to my knowledge he made no effort to contact me.

The gist of his article, which I urge readers to judge for themselves, is that my efforts have traded on emotion rather than facts or reason, and that my opponents' failure to understand and counteract my tactics underlies their difficulties in passing sentencing "reform."  I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the Salon article assumes that any fair-minded person, not sidetracked by emotion, would sign onto "reform" and reject my trailer park blandishments.

I respectfully dissent.
Mr. Isquith is candid in saying early on that he finds my views "wrong enough to be borderline abhorrent."  He says that I am influential, not merely because I (am thought to) have the ear of Sen. Grassley, but

...because "the man on the street," as Otis puts it, still believes crime is increasing and shares Otis's aversion to depicting the incarcerated as victims.

I don't know whether this sentence was intended to be misleading, but it could be read in that way.  Not once have I based my argument on the man-on-the-street's "believ[ing] crime is increasing."  Indeed, it is a cornerstone of my view that crime is decreasing; that more incarceration has helped bring this about; and the man on the street would want to keep the relatively low crime we have now (if he were ever asked).

The article continues:

When [Otis] says that more prison means less crime, [reformers] point to the many studies showing the claim to be unsubstantiated at best.

What I actually said (the Slate article gets this right), is that over fifty years, when we have more prison, we have less crime, and when we have less prison, we have more crime.  That is not only not "unsubstantiated," it's not even arguable.  One has but to look at the numbers, which show that it's true throughout this period and mind-bendingly stark over the last generation.  

I also cited the eminent criminologist, Prof. James Q. Wilson, as saying a quarter or more of the huge crime decrease over that time was because of the increased use of incarceration.  Wilson says this in agreement with the Levitt study at the University of Chicago and the Spelman study at the University of Texas.  I would note that the two leading reform advocates who were with me on the Federalist Society panel where this came up, Marc Levin and John Malcolm (of Heritage), did not dispute this number.  Indeed, Mr. Malcolm noted that some studies have put the number at higher than a quarter.

Salon then says:

But when Otis responds that these studies are just liberal propaganda, and that "common sense" suggests that mass incarceration leads to lower levels of crime, his anti-intellectualism gets at an important truth, too. Its nature may be political rather than empirical; but in a democracy, it's politics, not reason, that counts.

It's true that common sense will tell you that when a criminal is locked up, he's not ransacking your house, but at no point have I relied on common sense alone.  I have relied on the scholarly sources cited supra, and have done so explicitly numerous times on this blog and in many other public statements.

Nor had I previously been aware that citing to researchers at respected universities was my excursion into "anti-intellectualism" (although if the Salon article is representative of "intellectualism,"  I may have to reconsider).

Another favored rhetorical trope of Otis's is to describe the incarcerated with the kind of lurid, dehumanizing language that would offend most elites. In his world, every criminal is a "thug" who "belts you to grab your purse" or "rapes your eight year-old" or "assault[s] your college-age daughter on a meth-fueled high." If you've grown up in a nice, safe neighborhood and you've read-up on all the latest research, Otis sounds like a better-educated Archie Bunker.

You knew Archie Bunker was coming, right?  

I'll plead guilty, however, to a willingness to "offend most elites," including, I suppose, my fellow Stanford Law graduates and Georgetown Law adjuncts.  And if describing what criminals actually do is offensive and dehumanizing, I'll plead guilty to that, too  -- and indeed will continue my poor conduct right on this blog.  (Not that Mr. Isquith could possibly have thought I was purporting to describe all criminals, there being many who do much less serious stuff, as well as many who do things much more serious, as he couldn't help knowing).

Above all else, what Otis's one-man counterrevolution highlights is the power of emotion, which has always had the capacity to overwhelm rational thought.

This must be the definition of upside down.  My evidence is taken from statistics, not a single one of which made it into the "we-must-be-evidence-based" narrative of the   Salon piece.  For example, I have repeatedly (at this point, probably tiresomely) cited the size of the crime decrease, as shown by more than fifty years of UCR reports.  I have repeatedly referred to, and have never disputed, the very substantial increase in the prison population.  I have repeatedly referred (e.g., here) to the studies noted above about the extent of the causal relationship between these two things.  And I have repeatedly referred to the shockingly high recidivism rate, pointing to a broad study released last year by Eric Holder's Justice Department. 

I take it that Mr. Isquith never mentions any of this, not because he is dishonest, but because, unlike Mr. Obbie, he simply did not trouble himself to read what I have written before holding forth on what my arguments supposedly are, and the unworthy emotions in which they are said exclusively to trade.

And while the criminal justice reform movement's hesitancy to make emotional arguments is understandable, the fact that no major reform legislation has come out of Washington, despite this supposed bipartisan consensus, shows that reason has its limits.

What it actually shows is that obsessing about incarceration while ignoring crime has its limits.

If those who want to end the era of mass incarceration are to succeed, they'll need to convince more voters that crime is not always spurred by a lack of character, and that not everyone who breaks the law is "bad."

Their problem is that voters suspect, not without considerable reason, that reformers think crime is never spurred by a lack of character, and that criminals are merely passive, helpless vessels of adverse social forces.  No one's greedy, everybody's sick.

The article concludes (emphasis added):

Ultimately, the reform movement will have to touch on people's emotions, too. But instead of Otis's reliance on fear, disgust and anger, reformers will need to inspire feelings of empathy, forgiveness, and understanding. They'll need to create a culture where a person like Otis would never speak of a "thug" menacing your "daughter," because he knows that such demagoguery will earn him more opponents than friends.

Although I'm aware that the heckler's veto is newly in fashion, nowhere more ominously than with the Sensitivity Police (Felons' Division), I think I'll pass on being intimidated by it.  I'm too old, for one thing. And too stuck on the idea that, when a thug menaces someone's daughter, I will call it........ummmm........what it is.  I will call it by its name every time, all the time,, and will do the same with yoking, mugging, assault, battery, auto theft, animal cruelty, mayhem, child abuse, rape, smack-pushing  -- whatever comes up on the wannabe criminal's day planner. And I will do so even if, in consequence, I wind up on Salon's list of people with We-Don't-Have-Our-Minds-Right vocabularies.


I laughed out loud at this line: "...Otis’s aversion to depicting the incarcerated as victims."

You know, because the person left in a bloody heap is not the victim, the one who put him in that heap is.

Are there any references to "victims" in the piece having to do with the people who are the victims of crime?

I sure did not see it.

And the underlying theme in the piece by Salon's Pajama Boy is quite clear. The so-called "elites" are all reasonable and rational. Meanwhile, the ignorant hoi polloi are all getting sucked in by Bill's emotional "Archie Bunker" schtick.

The same crowd that accuses conservatives of waging a "war on women" huffs in the next breath that it's verboten to say "a thug is menacing your daughter."

I have learned my lesson! Henceforth, it will be "Mr. Nicey is menacing your daughter." As long as we don't do anything to Mr. Nicey but apologize for being callous and then give him a treasure in social services, it's OK.

As for the daughter..........ummmm..............well.................

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